48 Hours In: Berlin

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 made Charlies of the checkpoint guards, but even after 20 years its eastern side retains its own identity.
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Why go now?

Twenty winters ago, the city that is now capital of a united Germany was divided by the Wall. One side-effect of this inhumane barrier was to insulate East Berlin from the rapid commercialisation of the West and bestow it with a unique character. Since it came in from the cold, the city has become a cultural powerhouse; next Saturday (31 January), the Long Museum Night 180 museums open late (lange-nacht-der-museen.de).

Touch down

For the full Cold War experience, fly to East Berlin's Schönefeld airport, 19km south-east, on easyJet (0871 244 2366; easyjet.com) from Belfast, Bristol, Gatwick, Glasgow, Liverpool and Luton; Germanwings (0870 252 1250; germanwings.com) from Edinburgh and Stansted; or Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from East Midlands, Edinburgh and Stansted. From Schönefeld, the S-Bahn train service departs about every 20 minutes and takes 45 minutes to reach Friedrichstrasse station (1), once the only crossing point by public transport between East and West Berlin.

Other airlines, including British Airways, serve Tegel airport in former West Berlin, from which bus TXL runs to the sparkling new Hauptbahnhof (2) and Alexanderplatz (3), formerly the hub of East Berlin.

Get your bearings

Berlin's heart is now firmly in the east, the part of the city Stalin claimed for the USSR. The centre is defined by its great monuments: the Brandenburg Gate (4) to the west, the last survivor of the 18th-century city gates, and nearby the Reichstag (5), the beautifully revived parliament building. To the east, the mighty Berliner Dom (6) (cathedral) is dwarfed by the Television Tower (7) – known as the "Pope's Revenge", because whenever the sun shines on the globe near the top of the tower, a perfect cross is formed. North of here, the Prenzlauer Berg district is fun and bohemian, while further east, the area of Friedrichshain reveals unreconstructed parts of the city.

Travelling around by U-Bahn and S-Bahn is quick and easy; the standard one-way fare is €2.10 for a trip of up to two hours.

The city's main tourist offices are at Hauptbahnhof (2) (Europaplatz entrance, open daily 8am-10pm) and Brandenburg Gate (4), open daily 10am-6pm (00 49 30 25 0025 for all phone enquiries; visitberlin.de).

Check in

To get a sense of life in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, stay at the Ostel (8), part of a dreary apartment block at Wriezener Karree 5 (00 49 30 25 76 86 60; www.ostel.eu), revived as a retro-hostel. The place is full of DDR memorabilia and offers beds from €15 in a six-person "pioneer camp" dorm, to a single at €43 (breakfast €4.50 extra). The location, close to the Ostbahnhof (9) station, is outside the centre, but the S-Bahn runs frequently.

If you prefer to be at the heart of things, the new NH Berlin (10) at Friedrichstrasse 96 (00 49 30 206 2660; nh-hotels.com) has a superb location and stylish interior, for a very reasonable €103 (excluding breakfast) if you book ahead online.

West Berlin has excellent links to the heart of the city. The friendly and pretty Pension Peters (11), at Kantstrasse 146 (00 49 30 312 2278; pension-peters-berlin.de) is good value, with doubles from €68, including breakfast.

Take a hike

Start at the Brandenburg Gate (4), formerly tucked into a forbidden zone just inside the Berlin Wall – or "Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier", as the East German government described it. It has now regained its proper role as grand entrance to the city, full of tourists and street entertainers impersonating occupying troops. Unter den Linden, the city's broad boulevard, marches east from here, flanked with fancy stores and coffee bars.

Just past Berlin's main junction – where Unter den Linden crosses Friedrichstrasse – the old Staatsbibliotek (12) (national library) appears on the left. Wander into the courtyard to see the fine Prussian façade. A little further, past the H-shape of Humboldt University, the Neue Wache (13) was built as a neoclassical watch-house but has now become Germany's National Memorial. Within it stands a single, sombre sculpture, Käthe Kollwitz's Mother with Dead Son, below which are buried the remains of two unknown casualties of 20th-century conflict: a concentration-camp victim and a soldier.

Continuing east, cross the bridge to Museum Island, at present mainly under wraps. Open for business, though, is the Dom (6), a mighty Imperial structure that is worth a peek inside (9am-8pm daily, Sunday from noon).

Lunch on the run

Berlin's vernacular snack is currywurst, a sausage doused in sauce, served up on a paper plate and designed to be devoured along with a beer. You can fill up at any stand – such as the one beneath the rail bridge at Friedrichstrasse station (1) – for around €5.

Window Shopping

In the popular Prenzlauer Berg, Spielzeugwerkstatt (14) at Choriner Strasse 35 (00 49 30 449 440491) restores, exhibits and sells DDR toys; the friendly owner will take you around his fascinating collection. It opens 9.30am-6.30pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 11am-8pm on Thursdays, 11am-4pm on Saturdays.

On Kupfergraben (15), beside the canal that runs along the west side of Museum Island, a modest flea market specialising in DDR artefacts such as badges and hats takes place between about 11am and 4pm on Sundays, with some stalls also there on Saturdays.

Cultural afternoon

The DDR Museum (16), beside the river on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse 1 (00 49 30 847 123 731; www.ddr-museum.de) reveals East German life in all its shocking drudgery. You wait 16 years for your first car to arrive, and when it does, it's a fibreglass, two-stroke Trabant with all the acceleration of a dead slug.

You can see how the other half lived, snooped and holidayed any day between 10am and 8pm (to 10pm on Saturday), admission €5.50.

An aperitif

Hackescher Markt (17), a triangular space just north of the main rail line, is full of cafés and restaurants such as the entertaining Barist in one of the railway arches. For something a bit more sophisticated, the revamped Hackescher Hof (18) nearby hosts a warren of bars and shops.

Dining with the locals

The Café Nö! (19) may be located in a business district close to Checkpoint Charlie at Glinkastrasse 23 (00 49 30 201 0871; cafe-noe.de), but it has a homely, provincialambience in which to enjoy Germanic food (the speciality is the "Alsatian pizza", flammkuchen) with a Mediterranean twist. Closed Sundays.

Sunday morning: go to church

Bernauer Strasse, north of the centre, was the street that exposed the worst cruelties of the Berlin Wall. The line of division ran right alongside a row of houses that found themselves in the "wrong" half of the city when the first barrier went up in 1961.

Memorial plaques set into the pavement mark where civilians died in their desperate bid to jump to freedom.

A handsome church, St Elizabeth's, was destroyed in the 1980s in order to create a clear "death strip" that would be easier for the East German guards to control.

The Chapel of Reconciliation (20) was created out of the rubble in 2000 as a simple oval structure. The regular Sunday service is at 10am; you can visit 10am-5pm from Wednesday to Sunday.

Take a view

Opposite the chapel, the Wall Documentation Centre (00 49 30 464 1030; tiny. cc/gej51) features a tower with 89 steps – the same number as the year the wall fell. On the climb up, you follow a time-line of the events that led to the city being torn apart. At the top, you can look down on the meticulous measures taken to prevent East Germans fleeing to the West. Inside, exhibits tell the story of the night the Cold War front line arose in Berlin. Open 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission free.

Out to brunch

One element of the magnificence preserved all through the communist era is the Opera Café (21), just east of the State Opera House on Unter den Linden (00 49 30 202 683; opernpalais.de). For some capitalist indulgence, try the jazz buffet each Sunday (11am-2pm, €32.50). On other days of the week, settle for the buffet breakfast (€14.90) from 8am to noon.

A walk in the park

Tiergarten has long been the lungs of the city, laced with lakes and speckled with monuments. The most dominant is the Soviet War Memorial (22) – built on Stalin's orders in the western part of the city in 1945, and given priority over the need to rebuild homes. South-east from here, across Ebertstrasse, is the haunting Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (23), a field comprising an uneven grid of concrete slabs that you can – and should – walk through.

Write a postcard

Every visitor to Berlin ends up at Checkpoint Charlie (24), the land crossing-point for foreigners wanting to cross the Wall. A fake US military hut stands just south of the now-vapourised frontier, but panels beside the road tell the story of the Wall. Buy a card reading "You are leaving the American sector" from the touristic Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, and sign your papers.

Take a ride

U-Bahn line 1 runs (mainly above ground) along the line of the old city wall. The eastern terminus, Warschauer Str, is close to the West Side Gallery – a long strip of Wall.

The icing on the cake

The Reichstag (5) was built 115 years ago, but the German parliament building resumed its role as home for the nation's law-makers a decade ago. Part of the brief for Sir Norman Foster's design was that the public should be welcomed in freely. Any day, from 8am-midnight, you can visit the glass dome and roof terrace atop this magnificent confection. To avoid queues, come later in the evening (last admission 10pm), when the crowds have dwindled and you can appreciate the dazzling night panorama of this united city.

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